April 15, 2013
Trails through Red Hills
Total distance: 7.5 miles
Having learned about the Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern from an outdoor recreation website, I took a drive to the historic town of Chinese Camp in Tuolumne County where Red Hills is located. The area has been designated as a place of critical concern for several reasons, among them: to protect the rare plant species found there, and to protect the winter habitat of the bald eagle. My reason for visiting was to see wildflowers.
The large gravel parking area off of Red Hills Road was empty but for two horse trailers. An information board near a picnic table had a simple trail map posted. Looking at the map, I formed a route in my mind, then headed out.
Wildflowers showed up immediately beginning on the Old Stage Trail that skirted Red Hills Road. Bright yellow nodding seris, buttercups, and lavender blue dick dotted the way uphill. What might have been a dusty trail was wet and muddy in spots since I was there the day after a rain storm.
The most significant characteristic of the area was the rock that was a reddish color due to iron oxidation. From what I’ve read, Red Hills has “one of the largest exposures of serpentine rocks in the Sierra Nevada metamorphic belt.” I wasn’t expecting to walk upon a turbulent trail and was glad that my hiking shoes were specifically designed to guard feet from that type of exposure.
The fully exposed trail turned away from the busy country road and abutted a verdant pasture of a privately owned ranch. It then departed from all signs of civilization.
Large blooms of Indian paintbrush brightened the area throughout the buckbrush. Pale checkermallow were sprinkled throughout. Common monkeyflowers grew in patches along a mostly dry creek bed. I continued following the rocky path and saw newly laid tracks of elusive equine.
Heading towards one of the more sheltered trails that switchbacked through the foothill pines, I climbed higher, then spotted two horses and their riders a short distance away. That was the last I saw of them for the day as they moved around a hill and out of sight. To get back on course, I took the Butterweed Trail and returned to the Old Stage Trail passing a mucky stock water source and an area decorated with California poppies. The horseshoe prints continued in my path until they turned onto a section of the Soaproot Ridge Trail–where I walked later in the day.
My goal was to climb the rubble-covered hill in front of me. At the top, the trail was less rugged and I noticed tire tracks of a mountain bike in the soft dirt.
Looking down on an unoccupied shack in the middle of nowhere, I had a great view of the colorful hills and could see first hand why the area was named “Red Hills”.
While traversing the ridge, a distant view of Lake Don Pedro peeked through the trees.
Creamy yellow butterflies flitted about but none would alight for a photograph. I realized that I didn’t really know where I was going. It was past lunchtime, so I ate while retracing my path down the hill.
Remembering that I could circle back to the parking lot via the Soaproot Ridge Trail, I took that route–the way the horses went earlier in the day. A large jack rabbit startled me as he jumped back and forth on the trail. I walked until the trail broke into many different directions. Being unfamiliar with the area (and having a hard time discerning a dry creek bed from the trail), I chose to turn around and go back in the direction I walked that morning.
Since the tread was so rocky, my eyes were always on the ground. I saw a baby gopher snake sunning herself and was relieved that I didn’t step on her. She posed for a photograph before slithering back into the cool grass.
I’d like to come back to this area and explore more of the trails next spring. It was a peaceful and quiet day. I got in a good 7 1/2 mile hike and enjoyed the flora and fauna of the Red Hills region.